Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics (at NYU and Princeton), and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen returns to a subject he has treated repeatedly since the 1990s, mainstream media malpractice in covering Russia, but with a new and highly indicative example that is both historical and profoundly contemporary. There have been three relevant major episodes of such malpractice. The first was when American newspapers, particularly The New York Times, misled readers into thinking the Communists could not possibly win the Russian Civil War of 1918–20, as detailed in a study by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, published as a supplement to The New Republic, August 4, 1920. (Once canonical, the study was for years assigned reading at journalism schools, but no longer it seems to be.) The second episode was in the 1990s, when virtually the entire mainstream America print and broadcast media covered the US-backed “reforms” of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, which plundered and immiserated the Russian people, as a benevolent “transition to democracy and capitalism” and to “the kind of Russia we want.” (For this episode, see Cohen’s book Failed Crusade: American and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia.) The third and current episode grew out of the second but spread quickly through the media in the early 2000s with the demonization of Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s successor, and now is amply evidenced by mainstream coverage of the new Cold War, Russiagate’s allegation that “Russia attacked American democracy” in 2016, and much else related to Russia. This rendition may be the worst, certainly it is the most dangerous.
Media malpractice has various elements—among them, selective use of facts, some unverified, highly questionable narratives or reporting based on those “facts,” mingled with editorial commentary passed off as “analysis,” buttressed by carefully selected “expert sources,” often anonymous, and amplified by carefully chosen opinion page contributors. Throughout is the systematic practice of excluding developments (and opinion) that do not conform to the Times’ venerable motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” When it comes to Russia, the Times often decides politically what is fit and what is not. And thus the most recent but exceedingly important example.
In 1990, Soviet Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed not only to the reunification of Germany, whose division was the epicenter of that Cold War, but also, at the urging of the Western powers, particularly the United States, that the new Germany would be a member of NATO. (Already embattled at home, Gorbachev was further weakened by his decision, which probably contributed to the attempted coup against him in August 1991.) Gorbachev made the decision based on assurances by his then–Western “partners” that in return NATO would never be expanded “one inch eastward” toward Russia. (Today, having nearly doubled its member countries, the world’s most powerful military alliance sits on Russia’s western borders.) At the time, it was known that President George H.W. Bush had especially persuaded Gorbachev through Secretary of State James Baker’s “not one inch” and other equally emphatic guarantees. Ever since Bush’s successor, President Bill Clinton, began the still ongoing process of NATO expansion, its promoters and apologists have repeatedly insisted there was no such promise, that it had all been “myth” or “misunderstanding,” and moreover that NATO’s vast expansion had been necessary and has been a great success, actual myths that Cohen also discusses.